It’s 11:30pm. You’re on round 23 of ‘Der Reise’, friends frantically cheering or screaming down your headset as you fend off waves of the undead trying to reach a new high score. You’ve got school in the morning, but that doesn’t matter. Life is good.
Ten years ago, we were first introduced to Call of Duty‘s wildly popular Zombies mode through the simple but hauntingly effective level ‘Nacht Der Untoten’ – “Night of the Undead” – unlocked after completing the main campaign of 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. It was an accidental success, but one that still has legs in it: the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is set to feature the franchise’s eighth installment of the game mode since that original map.
Zombies only came about because of the success of the bonus level ‘Mile High Club’ unlocked at the end of the single-player campaign of World at War‘s predecessor, a little-known game called Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The developers behind World at War wanted a similarly enjoyable bonus level to be played after completing their main story. The original idea was to take control of a German soldier on D-Day, fighting off wave after wave of Allied troops until your bunker was overrun. A gritty and harrowing concept, to be sure, but one that lacked enough gameplay depth for the developers to truly love it. Over the following months, the idea evolved again – but the survival context stuck. What we came across, in the final game, was the basic first iteration of the Zombies game mode that would become a behemoth in its own right. The idea is simple, and has been adapted into countless games before and since, from Gears of War to Halo. Fight off waves of increasingly difficult enemies, by yourself or with a group of friends, for as long as possible until they overwhelm you. But what Treyarch introduced in World at War had a special spark that set Zombies apart from any other “horde” mode in any other game franchise.
The horror is part of it. The elements of ‘Untoten’ – the fog, the zombies that continue to attack even when decapitated, the messages scratched onto the walls – made for an eerily terrifying atmosphere that only subsequent Zombies maps have been able to match. Zombies also features a clean simplicity to its gameplay: kill zombies, get points, spend those points on weapons, ammo and unlocking parts of the map. Rinse & repeat, and add complexity – like wonder-weapons, entertaining characters, hidden songs and those impossible-to-crack Easter Eggs – to subsequent maps as the community learned ever more effective strategies for fighting off the undead.
But ultimately, Treyarch understood their audience. They know how fist-pumpingly fun it is to mow down swathes upon swathes of zombies with your friends, and they designed their whole game mode around that. Because ultimately, that’s what Zombies is about: having a damn good time, with the added panic and pressure of working as a team and the added terror of fighting literal undead monsters at 11:30pm, your friends screaming down your headset, not caring that you have work at 9am the next morning, ’cause you’ve got zombies to kill.
Watch the trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4‘s Zombies mode below: